MLA 07 Paper: Sameness or, the Declaration of Futuristic Democracy

Another one from the vaults. Although I am certain that I am making mistakes in my readings of the various thinkers I engage here, I am nevertheless rather proud of this paper, which was easily the most well-received of any paper I have ever given. It is also much more coherent. I must have put a lot more effort into conference papers back then.

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My plans for this paper initially included a formulation of a theory of declaration, a means by which to break the Sameness of the endless present, a means of destroying extant relationships, especially those that involve asymmetrical power. In fact, this declaration was to posit a means by which asymmetrical power can become symmetrical, much in the manner that Thoreau claims that a single just man can stand up to the power of the state and disrupt its hegemony. However, what I discovered in my thinking was that, far from interrupting Sameness, declaration, as it is understood historically and in the context of documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, far from being that which interrupts Sameness and inaugurates the future, is that which produces Sameness. It is thus, in my argument, an agent of the futuristic, a false future that is merely an extrapolation from the present. This paper is about this issue.

Throughout his work Giorgio Agamben returns to Aristotle’s conception of the ground, that formulation through which things are categorized. As he puts it in The Open, in reference to a passage from De anima, “Here we see at work that principal of foundation which constitutes the strategic device par excellance of Aristotle’s thought. It consists in reformulating every question concerning ‘what something is’ as a question concerning ‘through what something belongs to another thing’” (14). Following from his attention to the Aristotelian ground, Agamben is concerned in much of his work on biopolitics with the question of inclusion and exclusion and the role it plays in the modern nation-state.

Similarly, Carl Schmitt turns to Aristotle in the preface to the second edition of The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy, where he first notes that the notion of government by discussion, parliamentarianism, belongs not to democracy but, rather, to liberalism, a concept that Schmitt distinguishes from democracy. Writes Schmitt, cribbing from Aristotle’s Politics, “Every actual democracy rests on the principal that not only are equals equal but unequals will not be treated equally. Democracy requires, therefore, first homogeneity and second—if the need arises—elimination or eradication of heterogeneity” (9). Building upon his claim, Schmitt populates this equation with what, for Agamben and this paper, are problematic terms when he states that a “democracy demonstrates its political power by knowing how to refuse or keep at bay something foreign and unequal that threatens its homogeneity” (9). Schmitt would elaborate this distinction between the interior that is equal and the exterior that is not in The Concept of the Political, where he claims that the primary political opposition is that between friend and enemy. Agamben’s work marks a decisive turning away from Schmitt’s categories characterized by a reading of Aristotle that demonstrates the primacy of the formulation of the ground rather than the appearance of any particular instantiation of that formula. The significance of this turning away will become evident in the course of this paper.

In turning political thought away from Schmitt’s categories of friend/enemy, and towards inclusion/exclusion, Agamben is able to demonstrate what he calls in another context “philosophical vertigo”—here the shifting topological structure interior/exterior, inclusion/exclusion, the relation of nonrelation. Schmitt’s friend/enemy distinction is predicated on the notion that there is a separation between the domestic (which is ideally homogeneous) and the foreign (which is, in a conventionally Aristotelian sense, what is characterized by that which excludes it from the homogeneity of the domestic). By contrast, Agamben’s inclusion/exclusion pair, more than a simple game of one-upmanship in the quest to be the most “meta”, declares—in the sense of clearing up or making clear— first, the function of schisms within the homogeneity Schmitt posits as necessary for democracy and, second, the necessity of those schisms for establishing and maintaining that homogeneity. While the specifically nationalistic tenor of Schmitt’s friend/enemy categories are not surprising, they are no longer useful (if they ever were) for explaining the manner in which democracy establishes and maintains itself. For the remainder of this paper I would like to retain Schmitt’s argument about the necessity of homogeneity for democracy while replacing friend/enemy with inclusion/exclusion.

Additionally, I would like to think in a slightly different direction for a moment, to briefly consider a term from the title of my paper, its historical situation and its implications. There is a coincidence between the use of the verb “to declare” in English and Descartes formulation of the cogito. While I do not wish to place too much stress on this coincidence at the present time, as it is in some sense merely coincidental, a simple consideration of the term’s introduction to English and its several meanings will prove instructive. “To declare” comes to English from the French (the root is Latin); its first usage—in the sense of making clear or plain, clearing up—occurs in the early fourteenth century, some 300+ years before Descartes’ formulation. Similarly, in the early fourteenth century “to declare” also means “to manifest, show forth, make known; to unfold, set forth; to describe, state in detail; to recount, relate.” The history of the verb becomes interesting in the sixteenth century, when “to declare” becomes part of the formulation “to declare oneself”: “to avow or proclaim one’s opinions, leanings, or intentions” and “to make known or reveal one’s true character, identity, or existence.” Later in that same century it is used in conjunction with the powers of state, namely in the formulation “to declare war.” Interestingly, in this context, “to declare” does not mean, therefore, only to initiate war but also includes the connotation of making clear the existence of war. Finally, in the mid-seventeenth century “to declare” is used in its noun-form “declaration” to indicate “proclamation or public statement as embodied in a document, instrument, or public act.”

If we then find in “declaration” the original English (again, from the Latin via the French) meaning of “to declare” (which exists in the noun-form in the late-fourteenth century), then we can understand the term to mean something like “a making clear through public proclamation, especially as embodied in a document, instrument, or act.” And if such is the case we must ask what it is that made clear in declaration, specifically the documents the term seems to have been destined to be associated with, the American Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen? A more well-formed question: what does this making clear do, what purpose does it serve? To answer briefly, what is made clear is the subject of inclusion/exclusion, what it accomplishes is the vertigo-inducing inclusive exclusion/exclusive inclusion. (I would like add that the use of to declare/declaration becomes more common as the Renaissance progresses and should be seen as especially with the Scientific Revolution and its interest in facts and reading the book of Nature—although these are considerations for another time.)

To return to Descartes: we must at least consider the notion that the coincidence of the modern, juridico-political use of to declare/declaration with the formulation of the cogito is not merely coincidental. Behind both concepts there is what the Deleuze of Difference and Repetition calls an image of thought, “the supposition that thought is the natural exercise of a faculty, of the presupposition that there is a natural capacity for thought endowed with a natural capacity for truth or an affinity with the true, under the double aspect of a good will on the part of the thinker and an upright nature on the part of the thought” (131). This definition comes in the midst of a critique of Descartes, whose image of thought “proposes as universally recognized [. . .] what is meant by thinking, being and self” (131). Similarly, beneath declaration there is an image of thought that posits, because everybody knows and nobody can deny, the relationship between the inheritor of the rights the declarations declare and those rights: the what that characterizes the inclusion of the subject (which is itself a presupposition) and the state (which can only be a presupposition—it has yet to be formulated). More on that in a bit.

If this all seems a bit opaque, let me explain. The issue at stake for me in this context, as I stated in my prefatory remarks, is the production and maintenance of Sameness, what I call the futuristic vis-à-vis the future: the never-ending present. One of the manifestations of this Sameness, and one of its disinhibitors, is discussion, which has itself been widely discussed as an obstacle to progress. Schmitt critiques the function of discussion in parliamentarianism, noting that what passes for discussion does not have at its base for its participants common convictions or an intent to persuade or convince with regard to truth or justice. Derrida, in Rogues, questions the efficacy of Athenian democracy, with its potentially endless discussion. Deleuze, similar to Schmitt, critiques Western-style discussion in the context of democracy, noting that it never produced a single concept and that the participants in a discussion are never talking about the same thing: “Discussions are fine for roundtable talks, but philosophy throws its numbered dice on another table. The best one can say about discussions is that they take things no farther, since the participants never talk about the same thing. Of what concern is it to philosophy that someone has such a view, and thinks this or that, if the problems at stake are not stated? Communication always comes too early or too late, and when it comes to creating, communication is always superfluous” (D+G, WiP 28 ). Each of these thinkers deploys his argument in rather different contexts and for rather different purposes. And regardless of the context or the purpose, I certainly do not want to rule out debate as a method of interaction between political sides; however, such debate must take place on common ground. The problem is that it rarely does. And when it does, the problem becomes a question of cloture. When do we end debate? I had hoped to discover in declaration the means to this end, one that would be analogous to but opposite the sovereign decision. I must bracket these concerns for the present to state that what is common to Schmitt, Derrida, and Deleuze is that the discussion, the communication, the conversation serves only to maintain the present, to allow the future no purchase and afford it no becoming. And it is the subject of this conversation that concerns me here, as it is declaration—making clear through public proclamation—that is found at the origin of the modern form of this Sameness.

Agamben’s inclusion/exclusion pairing lays bare this Sameness, this never-ending present. The Schmittian enemy may threaten the friend, the one who is included in the demos by virtue of an exclusion, by virtue of the logic of the ban, the one who is always already a part of the sacred order of the Same; however, the enemy may never threaten the nation as it causes no fracture there so long as it remains an exteriority. For this reason, friend/enemy does not provide us with a sufficient understanding of contemporary political discourse. Conversely, inclusion exclusion encompasses friend/enemy at the moment the enemy is made a part of the national identity. Additionally, inclusion/exclusion encompasses the more important issue of the fracture within the nation. Most significantly, whereas friend and enemy imply a distinction, especially given the nationalistic overtones of these terms in Schmitt’s work, inclusion/exclusion do not, as one might expect, imply difference. Rather, they are bound up in the production of the homogeneity, one that is now a pure homogeneity, without the exterior heterogeneity Schmitt implies.

And in declaration, the production of this sameness in modern democracy begins.

Allow me to discuss this claim more closely. By Sameness I do not refer to a simultaneity, a coincidence in time. Nor do I refer to mere likeness. Sameness is not people eating a McDonald’s hamburger in Beijing and Chicago, although such likeness and simultaneity is a symptom and byproduct of Sameness. Rather, Sameness is a form, a radical form into which all is fit, not because of the properties of the things at hand, but because of the topological structure of the form itself. This structure is part and parcel of Agamben’s inclusion/exclusion: those who are different than the desired-Same are included within it by being excluded. (As an aside—we can imagine quite a few marginalized groups who are so different without ourselves determining them to be different in identical manners; it is, in fact, the lack of such a critical element that is our strength; such divisions, a deployment of difference as a “different than,” is the production of Sameness.)

The form of this exclusion is described in Agamben, who largely borrows it from Hannah Arendt. With the making clear of the relationship between man and state in declaration—for example in the claim that men are “endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights”—the presupposed state publicly claims a responsibility for life not seen hitherto even while potentially abandoning the presupposed subject of those rights to the treatment reserved for an unequal if it is stripped of its relationship to the state. As Arendt argues, “If a human being loses his political status, he should, according to the implications of the inborn and inalienable rights of man, come under exactly the situation for which the declarations of general rights provided. Actually, the opposite is the case. It seems that a man who is nothing but a man has lost the very qualities which make it possible for other people to treat him as a fellow-man” (300). Once the human subject is abandoned by the state, it is thrown upon what Arendt calls “the dark background of mere givenness, the background formed by our unchangeable and unique nature,” a nature which includes capacities of body and mind, in short, life (301).

The nature of inclusion/exclusion is such that exclusion is not based upon a radical distinction from the homogeneity, because such a distinction can only exist, in public, after the fact of the act of exclusion—the rights which are attributed to the subject are liquidated in the dissolution of the bond between legislator and citizen. (Agamben critiques the notion that declarations of rights accomplish this binding; in fact, we might say that the bond only exists in its non-existence, but I don’t want to confuse this discussion any further.) Rather, exclusion is accomplished as a function of the Sameness of the people, in its constituents’ individualities, the affects of each citizen qua unique, individual human. All humans are human as such and the collectivity of their differences, the universally distributed difference of humanity is what accomplishes the production of the Same, is what allows us to be numbered among the citizenry. And because all are the same, all are (perhaps potentially, perhaps always already) excludable. In fact, our inclusion is fundamentally tied to our excludability, a condition that Agamben theorizes as “bare life,” a life that can be killed but not sacrificed, a life that may be destroyed but whose destruction has no meaning or significance precisely because it no longer belongs to any juridico-political structure.

Here we can return to the notion of the Aristotelian ground and note that that through which the human belongs to a citizenry is not a particular characteristic common to all humans but rather a general lack of any single characteristic, a lack engendered by the attribution of rights to the citizen not in its capacity as citizen but in its capacity as human. Near the conclusion of Homo Sacer, Agamben notes that “The ‘people’ thus always already carries the fundamental biopolitical fracture within itself. It cannot be included in the whole of which it is a part and [. . .] cannot belong to the set in which it is always already included” (177 – 8). (Elsewhere, Agamben writes of the anthropological machine of Western humanism. The inclusion of humans in the human has an identical function in a somewhat different register.)

With this in mind we can understand what it is that is declared in declaration, what is the subject of making clear and clearing up. To use a different formulation of to declare, to declare oneself, we can also see what it is that is revealed about “one’s true character, identity, or existence.” Moreover, we can understand the consequence of declaration as a public act. What declaration declares is not a nation or a state, but rather humanity, the liberal dream of a universal subject that has among its origins the image of thought found in the Cartesian cogito. What declaration reveals is not the unalienable nature of our rights in the sense that these rights cannot be taken away, but rather that we cannot be alienated from something that we only relate to through the logic of the ban. What declaration makes clear is independence, an independence from everything but the mere fact of existence, one that exists prior to declaration and is independent of it.

I would like at this point to have the time to go further into this subject, to discuss the function of declaration in the formulation of the people; to discuss the formulation of the people as a interpretation of the will of the people, something Schmitt discusses with regard to majority politics, where he finds common ground with Thoreau in his distrust of the ability of the majority, even if his conclusions are radically different than the writer of “Civil Disobedience.”

But mainly what I would like to have time to discuss is the means by which declaration might be made to do what I want it to do, not a making clear but something else. The problem is, among other things, that I do not believe that the opposite of making clear is making opaque. If making clear is part of the image of thought at work in declaration, then what must be overcome is the various parts of that image that allows it to work. Of course, given that these parts include the subject of rights, the state, and the relationship that binds one to the other, I have not, I suppose, advanced this conversation as much as I would have liked.

I will conclude with a quote and some thoughts that a little more than aphorisms. First the quote: in the third example of What is Philosophy?, the tenor of which Agamben echoes in his critique of declarations of rights, Deleuze and Guattari note that “Beginning with Descartes, and then with Kant and Husserl, the cogito makes it possible to treat the plane of immanence as a field of consciousness. Immanence is supposed to be immanent to a pure consciousness, to a thinking subject” (D+G, WiP 46). Later, in his last published text, Deleuze writes: “But we shouldn’t enclose life in the single movement when life confronts universal death. A life is everywhere, in all the moments that a given living subject goes through and that are measured by given living objects: an immanent life carrying with it the events or singularities that are merely actualized in subjects and objects” (Deleuze, Pure 29). Agamben: “. . . a life. . ., as the figure of absolute immanence, is precisely what can never be attributed to a subject, being instead the matrix of infinite desubjectification. In Deleuze, the principle of immanence thus functions antithetically to Aristotle’s notion of the ground.” Moreover, “a life. . . marks the radical impossibility of establishing hierarchies and separations” (Potentialities 232 – 3).

What is needed is an inclusion that is exclusive of exclusion, not a declaration (making clear) of the making clear of the subject, or the people, of a will that is an everybody knows spoken of by the representative, but a declaration of a life. . . that prethought of the people’s thought. Only by moving backwards can we proceed forwards.

Works Cited

Agamben, Homo Sacer

Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philsophy?

Deleuze, Difference and Repetition

Deleuze, Pure Immanence

Agamben, Potentialities

Agamben, The Open

Schmitt, Political Theology

Schmitt, The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy

Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

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One Response to “MLA 07 Paper: Sameness or, the Declaration of Futuristic Democracy”

  1. […] text from the archives, a more complete and wide-ranging version of the MLA paper I posted last week. This was the dissertation chapter form which that paper was culled. This was […]

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